I’ve posted numerous times about the equally numerous ways in which American gerrymandering distorts elections. Although it hadn’t previously occurred to me, it turns out that American politicians aren’t the only ones who’ve figured out how to draw lines to do an end run around democracy and ensure continued control by a political minority.
I was commiserating with one of my sons over the results of the election in Hungary. I had hoped that the opposition to Viktor Orban would prevail–the pre-election reporting suggested that there was significant support for that opposition. My son directed me to an analysis in the Economist showing how the Hungarian version of gerrymandering had packed opposition votes into small districts, and–given the Hungarian system–how that tactic guaranteed a victory for Fidesz, Orban’s Neo-fascist, pro-Putin party.
In an upcoming election a populist conservative party is poised for victory. It leads polls by mid-single digits. It is also aided by gerrymandered districts, drawn after it won an election in 2010, which should secure its majority today even if its opponents get more votes. The party is not America’s Republicans, who lead polls by just two points and whose advantage in gerrymandering has dwindled. Instead, it is one that some Republicans cite as a model: Fidesz in Hungary, led by Viktor Orban, which faces voters on April 3rd.
Hungary has a mixed-member parliament. Just over half of mps represent geographic districts; the rest come from party lists allocated in proportion to the national vote. Academics often praise this method. But Hungary’s version is warped.
First, rather than having independent experts draw districts, Fidesz drew them itself. Legislators in many American states do this, too. But in America, constituencies must have nearly equal numbers of people. In Hungary, by contrast, their populations can vary by up to 35%. This lets the party in power pack opposition voters into a few heavily populated districts, and spread out its own among lots of less-populous ones.
Here in the good old U.S. of A, we’ve seen how much game-playing can be accomplished by partisans even when districts must be numerically equal. The key would seem to be the line-drawing role of those partisans–the American rules that allow parties in control of state legislative bodies to draw that state’s districts, and the Hungarian rules that allow the Fidesz party to do so in Hungary.
In both countries, the goal is the same: to use the line-drawing power to pack opposition voters into as few districts as possible, and to spread out its own voters among a greater number of districts where they maintain a majority, albeit a thinner one. In Hungary, where districts can vary in population, it’s easier to do–but the approach is the same.
Fidesz has deployed this tactic deftly. When it took power in 2010, it fared similarly in the least- and most-populous districts. At the next election in 2014, after it re-drew the borders, its vote share was six percentage points higher in districts with fewer than 70,000 eligible voters than in those with at least 80,000. As a result, Fidesz won 91% of constituency seats and a two-thirds supermajority overall, despite getting just 45% of the vote. In 2018 it won 67% of seats again, with 49% of the vote.
The Economist calculated that– thanks to gerrymandering–Hungary’s opposition would need 54% of votes to control parliament.(Members of parliament vote for the President.) It also calculated that Fidesz could hold on to power with just 43%. “By contrast, at the peak of American Republicans’ gerrymandering in 2012, they needed 48% to win the House of Representatives.
Some political scientists argue that gerrymandering isn’t really a major contributor to America’s less-than-democratic outcomes–that the urban/rural divide has produced the “packing and cracking” that gives us minority rule. But early results from states that have enacted redistricting reforms suggest otherwise.
Academic researchers have found–somewhat to their surprise– that redistricting reform moderates the partisanship of Representatives. Studies have also confirmed that the use of neutral institutions such as commissions produces fairer and more competitive elections.
Gerrymandering has been shown to depress turnout– after all, why vote when redistricting has evidently neutered you? In a 2008 study, a researcher calculated that truly competitive House districts could generate up to eleven million additional votes, and that those votes would come disproportionately from states with particularly egregious gerrymandering practices, like Indiana.
The Economist analysis of Hungary’s system suggests that illiberal politicians everywhere will use gerrymandering to retain control and thwart majoritarian choices. (Of course, in Hungary, there’s the depressing reality that Orban remains popular, which makes it easier.)
Here in the U.S., absent solid Democratic control of Congress and/or passage of the election and voting reforms currently stymied by Joe Manchin, our system will continue to discount the clear desires of the American majority.